Mary Ellen Gambutti
Our Stories, Our Voices
Welcome and Hello to you, and to Spring!
Today is Saturday, April 16th, the day before Easter. My husband Phil is washing the windows, enjoying the mild Lewes Delaware weather. We moved back to the northeast from Sarasota, Florida last July, and made it through our first winter here "without a hitch." Our seven years in Florida were exciting, but we missed the seasonal change. We had lived north of Philadelphia since 1985, so despite a few snowfalls here, compared to our winters in Bucks County in the '90s--digging out our long mini-farm driveway--well, we had it easy this year.
I was adopted by an Air Force couple, and as might be expected, the family was mobile. From the time I joined them in South Carolina, in 1952, we began to make local and long-distance moves. This is how it was: my parents were busy, so most trips weren't strictly for pleasure, nor did we take family vacations. Even our three-year tour in Tokyo didn't spark family excursions. Mom took a cruise to Hong Kong from Tokyo with the officer's Wives club, and Dad went on temporary duty overseas multiple times throughout Asia. My adopted kid sister and I didn't see much beyond dependent housing in Japan, but I did attend a Tokyo international school in the fifth and sixth grades.
Before our tour in Tokyo, we drove or flew back and forth between New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the midwest, and three southern states. I find that my adopted military life experience has continued to influence the number of my "re-locations." Instead of settling permanently in Florida as my husband and I anticipated, and although these were mutual decisions, we moved three times in Florida: From a garden apartment, we purchased a home in a lovely community, then moved to a new downtown apartment building. Now we are here in Delaware. Will there be more moves?
Tell me about your experiences with frequent moves; whether or not you are adopted, or in the military. I'd love to hear from you!
I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls is the truthful story of my adoption into a military post-World War II family. It's the story of how my friendships, the family that molded me, and both my borrowed and my native heritage intertwine. It's my story of the continued concealment of adoptees' truths, covered up by convenience and by law. Adoption is still shrouded in a culture of secrecy and lies that stigmatize adoptees, keeping us marginalized citizens; permanently illegitimate children. For my part, it would take a reunion to restore and resolve identity confusion. Adoptee stories will make a difference, I believe. Not only will our voices change the conventional fairy tale adoption narrative, but they also empower adoptees, and we hope, result in a change in the system that is the monied institution of adoption.
I'd like to share an essay that's taken several forms over the years. It encapsulates my early life.
The Blue Bicycle and the Adopted Air Force Girl
Mary Ellen Caffrey Gambutti
Texas, September 1957.
In the bicycle department at Sears Roebuck in Victoria, Dad points out a blue 26-inch J.C. Higgins cruiser he’d seen in the catalog. "Here’s the one we’ll get. What do you think?” Wouldn’t any six-year-old be impressed with such a beautiful bicycle? The purple, steel-framed tricycle I'd pedaled up and down the sidewalk at our New Jersey family home couldn’t compare to this grown-up’s bike, and anyway, the trike had been passed on to cousins. I nod and clap with glee.
“Yes! I like it! I can ride it!”
My thirty-six-year-old adoptive dad, a U.S. Air Force Captain stationed at Foster Air Force Base hoists my new bike into the ample trunk of our green Buick Special with a set of training wheels. My mother had said, “I stay away from bicycles ever since I fell off when a dog chased me on the dirt road when I was your age,” and she was true to her word. Mom would have nothing to do with my bicycle.
On the driveway of our brick duplex rental, I stand astride my birthday present, while Dad adjusts the seat, handlebars, pedals, and training wheels. “OK, go ahead--start pedaling—go slow.” I feel strong. My legs push down—right, then left. My slender fingers are wrapped around the white handlebar grips. My arms are flexed to steer forward on the sidewalk. The tall pecan tree on the next lawn looks far away. Beyond the neighbor’s driveway lies unfamiliar terrain.
“Stop here.” He helps me off and reverses my bicycle to point toward our house. Back on board, the training wheels frustrate me. “I don’t want them on. I can’t turn, I can only go straight!” They wobble and restrict my movement. Dad concedes it's safe to take them off after two more passes to and from the Pecan tree. “Ok, push off! Pedal!" With his hand flat on the rear rack, I start slowly, then pick up speed and confidence. He guides me into momentum, advancing me through my first imbalance.
He’s slow-trotting beside me. I laugh in the breeze, fearless. I trust he won't let me go until the right time. I hear him coaching through my cycling stream. “Hold the grips tight, keep the handlebars straight! Turn a little to the left--to the right! Steer! Keep pedaling!” I have it. I'm ready to fly. The moment he lets go is imprinted on me.
Louisiana, Summer 1958.
I'm heartbroken when we have to move from our second rented brick duplex on Dennis Street when I'm seven and have to say goodbye to Saint Frances Cabrini's second-grade schoolmates and my Brownie troop. I’d been free to ride my bike for a year with wildling neighbor boys and girls. Wearing cowboy clothes, and carrying metal cap shooters, we explored and breached the chain-link backyard boundary.
I am learning I must adapt or be lost, so through my tears, I see adventure on Schilling Drive in the officer’s housing complex of England Air Force Base, in Alexandria. I step into the expanse of tall, cool grass behind our tan duplex, 4009A, with the fragrant clover, and pink poppy mallows. I soon join the neighborhood boys and girls. Across the backfield is a swale and drainage ditch where tadpoles appear after rain, and where I tromp in rubber boots. I venture across this verge into a wide-open, scrubby field, once part of the cattle ranch that became the airbase and is now a jet flight path. I startle when, out of nowhere, sonic booms envelop me.
Now eight, I’m a cowgirl with a bike for a horse, riding the range of the wide asphalt roads like a ruffian. I crash when I cut a curve too quickly or hit a curb. But the smart and sting of screaming scrapes can’t keep me from my beloved blue bike. Hands, knees, and elbows take the brunt. The ouches of abrasions bring my mom’s iridescent Mercurochrome in her innocent-looking brown bottle; gauze and adhesive tape when the Band-Aids don’t hold. Scabs last weeks, since I torture and pick around the raw, raised edges. But I’m back aboard in the breeze that dries my tears.
Dad fastens a bulky lamp with a battery pack and a rude-sounding buzzer to my bike’s handlebars to keep me safe in the evening. The loose wires distress me, and I quickly lose my balance. I howl, more from frustration and fury than from pain, and fiercely kick the wobbly lamp as it lies loosely against the sidewalk. Dad comes out the kitchen door through the carport when he hears my wail. He chides me and releases the clumsy apparatus. I never see it again.
Mom tells me Dad’s work is hard when I ask her about the migraines that have become frequent. He shows me his white pills, “Cafergot.” He goes to bed early with a washcloth on his forehead, or he keeps their door closed and rests in bed on Saturday. It troubles me that he’s sick and in pain. I’m fearful and worried that I’ll get sick.
I sometimes tremble at night and make myself sick, but Mom doesn’t know how to console me when I can’t calm down. She just lets it pass, without a hug. She never hugs me like her mother, my Nana does in our New Jersey home--our permanent home.
Dad is impatient with me and is angry more often. When I back-talk Mom or let the screen door slam, he yells, or threatens, “Don’t make me take my belt off!” But it’s too late, and it flies; buckle and strap. At recess, I show the raised welts on my left arm and shoulder to a few curious classmates.
“See what my dad did?” They ask why a girl who looks well-cared-for is treated meanly. “What did you do?”
“They’re not my real parents, you know. I’m adopted.”
They might ask, “What’s that?” I explain to the third graders what Dad told me at six: "I had nobody. They picked me out in an orphanage in South Carolina.”
My wound opens with each re-telling. I want their pity. I want to tell them about my difference, my frailty. And I want to get back at my dad for hurting me.
Still, I have the freedom to ride away on my blue bicycle. I wear my yellow leather boots and a cowgirl hat. I wear my leather holster and two six-guns and carry a good supply of caps to boost my power.
New Jersey, Winter 1960.
I didn't understand we'd be living in New Jersey again. More likely, I thought it was only another visit to Nana and Granddaddy's house as we drove north again for the last time with my baby sister, who was adopted the previous year in Louisiana. I later learned that Dad was transferred to the New York City Federal offices to prepare for three years in Tokyo and that he was an intelligence officer.
I'm in the second half of fourth grade in January at the church school of the Ascension. I wear a blue serge jumper dress, a beanie with gold AS letters, a white short-sleeved shirt, and a blue clamp-on bow tie. I recognize kids from my kindergarten days. The van brings furniture and boxes, and on the driveway “My bike is here!” For the first time in New Jersey, I'm ready to ride on our familiar neighborhood streets and sidewalks. When the ice melts, I can ride it a mile to school from Asbury Street, up the little hill, and a right turn at the corner onto Hoffman Avenue, then a left onto Berkeley Street, down to Faller Circle, and around to Ridge Avenue, then right onto the short block of Carnation Drive to my school. I’m proud to stand my handsome blue bike with the other kids' bikes on the rack.
I have no bicycle basket, so I clutch the grown-up-looking cordovan leather briefcase Dad gave me for Christmas in my left hand, and it swings forward and back as I steer with my right hand. The crossing guard at Hoffman and Berkeley, whose name I never learn--but I know he's a retired policeman says, "I'm worried about you only using one hand to steer. You might lose your balance holding your bag that way. I’d like to make a hanger to hold it against the handlebars. I have something I can use in my garage.” He lives down the block on Hoffman. “Okay, yes, thanks. That will be good.” I say to my new friend, and we walk together across Berkeley on my bike.
The next morning, he holds it up to me. “Let's see how it works.” He explains how he bent and shaped the thick, pliant metal into a double hook, and attaches it between the handlebars in the same place Dad hung the safety lamp and buzzer in Louisiana. My friend the crossing guard hangs my book bag from the hook by its handles and stands back, smiling. “That looks good!” he says, and I smile, too, and thank him.
I put my bike away in the garage after school, as usual. I think it's just as well that no one at home notices my new bike fixture. I think it's a secret, and don't want to make my dad angry at me and the crossing guard. My braids bounce against the back of my shoulders and the spring breeze streams me back and forth to school. When school closes for summer, I never see the hook again, exploring our town with new bike-riding girlfriends. At the end of six months in our warm New Jersey home, it’s time for another change.
Tokyo, June 1961.
Mom, Dad, two-year-old Julie, and I have flown to Japan in a Pan-American jet to begin the three-year tour in an American military housing complex called Washington Heights, in downtown Tokyo. Grassy courts are surrounded by beige, ordinary-looking double, and single-story houses. Mom and Dad make our two-story quarters comfortable with a few pieces of familiar furniture, and some from "supply" left by departing American families.
As service people, all we need is here: offices, schools, a movie theatre, a non-denominational chapel, a Base Exchange, clubs, swimming pools, wide streets, and sidewalks lined with flowering cherry trees, and park-like grounds that stretch along a wide slope below our court. I’m free to roam on foot or ride my bicycle. The stone wall that runs along the back of the forest-like grounds where we play separates Washington Heights from many acres of evergreens of the Meiji Shrine gardens. I ride my bike up and down the deep forested gully, around the roots, and over the lawns, finding every path.
After sixth grade, we move to Johnson Air Force Base, because Washington Heights will be torn down for the 1964 Summer Olympics. It's a big shock to me because Tokyo International school has become an important part of my life. Still, this is how it is in a military family. But as an adoptee, it feels like a bigger loss, it's just that I don't yet comprehend what that loss is.
One spring Saturday, at the end of our three years, Dad says, “I’m going to paint your bike to get rid of these scratches. I’ll clean it up before it goes on the boat.”
He lifts it from the side of the house where I lean it and puts the kick-stand down on the grass. He uses masking tape to cover the seat with newspaper. I sit on the top step of our front stoop, a safe distance from the coming spray. He shakes the aerosol can and aims a fan of blue at my six-year-old bike. He shakes again, the beads clacking in the can, and sprays an even coat over my bike’s body. One stab, a brief pang of regret, and I’m resigned to the new light blue finish; and my bike’s original white markings deleted along with the scratches and scrapes. He stands back, pleased. “What do you think?” he asks.
“Nice. Thank you, Dad.” But it will never be the same.
He takes off the protective newspaper and walks my bike to the street. I feel sure he’s never ridden my bicycle, but he takes it for a spin in the sun to dry it, making a few tight turns. I grin back at his grin, and his plaid shorts, calf-length white socks, and his old black oxfords. Did he have a bike growing up in New York City? He hasn't told me, and I don't ask.
New Jersey, again, 1964.
Stateside, my girlfriends and I walk a few miles back and forth to shop for records at Two-Guys, or we take the bus to E.J. Korvettes and the Bergen Mall. At thirteen and fourteen, we prefer to hoof it, exercising new freedom, alert for boys. Little kids, like my sister, Julie, ride little bikes with banana seats. Some older kids have three-speed or ten-speeds. I’d rather avoid the teasing I’m sure I’ll get for riding a cruiser with manual brakes.
One summer day in 1966, I check on it--consider riding it--but it’s not on its kick-stand at the back of the garage. My heart sinks, and I call out, “Mom! Where’s my bike? My bike’s gone!" She says, “Your father brought it over to cousin Johnny's for his kids."
“Why? Why didn’t he tell me?” I'm pleading. "You weren’t using it anymore,” she replies without apology.
He gave my bicycle to my mom's cousins without talking to me about it. Behind my back! Dad had given our trusty 1953 Buick Special to them, too, without warning me. The car Mom and Dad drove us north and south, shipped it to Japan, and drove on the narrow streets of Tokyo. Now it was theirs, and they replaced it with an ugly Buick Wildcat. I was angry, and a bit surprised at my jealousy and resentment. Like dolls I'd nurtured and toys and books that were part of my childhood, they now belonged to this large family. Taken from my room without warning me. It occurs to me that nothing is mine. Neither the car, nor the bike, nor any of my possessions. As we move, my parents shed things. All of it is theirs to do with as they, please. All I have--all I am--is because of them. They chose to keep me. I hide my adolescent tears in the garage.
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